Friday, August 28, 2020

Feature or Flaw?

While it is unusual, at times Rick Bell and I see things quite differently. Other than the events described below, however, I can recall only a handful of occasions when we were genuinely out of sync. Rick is intelligent, reasonable, and extremely patient. Additionally, he and I are politically, religiously, and economically aligned, so we don’t have much to argue about. While I am not the most difficult person in the world, even Priscilla has noted I can be . . . determined. Momma Rose calls me “challenging,” or even “hardheaded.” I, however, disagree; I just know what I want and don’t give up easily.

The incident in question occurred last Friday, when Rick, Priscilla, and I were marking time, waiting for somebody, anybody, to arrive and break the monotony. In April, like many small businesses in America, the Coronavirus infected our operation. The pandemic has since been doing an extremely efficient job of discouraging customers from visiting southeastern Utah. The Twin Rocks economy has acquired all the symptoms of Commercial COVID-19, including fiscal fatigue, shortness of cash, and lost revenue. We do, however, remain optimistic a cure is on the horizon, and hope an end to our financial anemia is near.

On the afternoon in question, even Pearl the Trading Post Trainee was laser focused on the Kokopelli doors. About that time, the mother-daughter team of Ruby and Bessie Coggeshell strolled into the showroom. Ruby and Bessie have been bringing their fine weavings to Twin Rocks almost as long as Priscilla and I have been attending the counter. In fact, our photograph albums are chalk full of pictures showing them holding baby Kira and infant Grange, now 24 and 20, respectively. We even have pictures of Ruby’s son Kevin when he was a boy. He has been in the Navy more years than we can count and has a child of his own.

While their rugs are typically of the Red Mesa Outline variety, this time Ruby unveiled an unfamiliar pattern. It was reminiscent of the classic Chief Blanket style, but with a contemporary twist. When Rick asked Ruby what it was called, she nonchalantly replied, “I don’t know, just something new.” As always, the rug was exceptionally well woven, with small weft threads, near-perfect design execution, and beautiful colors. There was, however, something different about this weaving. The background was a deep indigo, consistent in hue except for a line of slightly lighter blue near the top. 

“What is that?” I asked. “It’s a feature,” Ruby replied, “part of the design.” “It’s a color change,” I countered. “Nope,” she stated emphatically. This, however, was not my first rug-rating rodeo. In fact, I have extensive experience in that particular arena. Shortly after we opened the trading post many years ago, a young mother brought in a stunning Burntwater-style weaving. It was amazing, but there was a “flaw.” Just as in Ruby’s rug, the top part of that weaving contained a slight color variation. “What’s that?” I asked the youthful weaver. “A spirit line,” she confidently responded.

Navajo weavers often leave imperfections in the borders of their rugs. These variations are called ch’ihonlt’i, which loosely translates into “spirit line.” It is said this design element allows the weaver’s spirit to safely exit the rug upon completion. Priscilla has explained that Navajo people believe only God is perfect, and we humans can never achieve that same perfection. Navajo artists consequently leave a slight defect in any piece they create.

By that time, I had seen a few spirit lines and knew the change in this young mother’s weaving was not as represented. Consequently, I pressed the issue. After a few minutes, the weaver relented and gave this explanation: "I have three kids and can only weave at night, after they go to bed. Our house does not have good light, so it’s always a little dark when I start working. The kids would not go to sleep that evening and were driving me crazy. I just used the wrong color. I thought it looked kinda’ good and didn’t want to take it out, so I left it in.”

At the time, Kira and Grange were small and I knew what she meant. I also thought she had an incredibly human story, so I bought the rug and hung it on the wall, expecting to have it for a long, long time. Not 72 hours later another young parent came into the trading post, spotted the weaving, noted its beauty, and, inspecting it closely, said, “What’s that?” I related the tale, and he immediately decided to take the rug home. He appreciated the weaver’s circumstances and felt a parental connection to her. For several years afterward, he returned annually, related the story and told me how much he was enjoying the rug.

When I once again inquired about the color change, Rick sided with Ruby, reminding me of the book Weaving a World: Textiles and the Navajo Way of Seeing, by Roseann S. Willink and Paul G. Zolbrod. This book explores the patterns and irregularities often considered flaws in Navajo rugs and blankets and seeks to identify them as mythic symbols, historic messages, and/or personal stories.

In order to interpret the meaning of unexplained anomalies found in certain textiles, several Navajo weavers were invited to undertake a piece-by-piece examination of over 200 historic weavings found in museum collections. The findings were extraordinary, and the book became a must read for those interested in Navajo art. In the rugs and blankets scrutinized during the investigation, what at first blush appeared to be mistakes turned out to be references to the Hero Twins, birth, death, rebirth Holy People, monsters, Father Sky, Mother Earth, or other well-known legends and stories.

At that point I had to admit Rick was making a serviceable argument. Ruby saw her opening and moved firmly into Rick’s corner. Bessie stood quietly nearby. After a spirited discussion about sun-drenched days and moonlit nights, the transaction closed without resolving the outstanding issue. In the end, whether the variation is a flaw or a feature is unimportant. The rug, like our relationship with Ruby and Bessie, is exceptional. Many years from now, some expert may evaluate it and find hidden meaning in the unique design. For now, we will simply accept the conclusion that the altogether captivating weaving contains an interesting irregularity.


Friday, August 21, 2020

Twin Rocks Cafe receives Shop in Utah grant to benefit local Navajo Families

Bluff’s Twin Rocks Trading Post and Cafe is pleased to announce that we are the recipient of a generous Utah Governor’s Shop in Utah grant. The award of approximately $50,000 will be used to create a Feed the Hungry campaign to provide food relief for local families. Beginning September 1, and for the duration of the grant, for every dollar spent in the cafe, one dollar will be used to assemble healthy food boxes for those in need. For example, each $10 meal from the cafe will provide two meals for a needy family. 

The nearby St. Christopher’s Mission to the Navajo has agreed to identify families in need and help distribute food boxes. Every $100.00 spent at the cafe will provide approximately 20 nutritious meals for a family of four. The food boxes include staples like bread, fresh fruits and vegetables, flour, rice, sugar, milk, meat, butter, beans, and other necessities. Paper products and no-water sanitizers will also be included.

The grant also allows current employees of the cafe to keep working during this difficult period. Twin Rocks has previously worked closely with the Bluff Area Mutual Aid, the Rural Utah Project, Shamrock Foods, and Whitehorse High School to provide thousands of meals during the early stages of this pandemic. The Shop in Utah grant is expected to provide more than 10,000 additional meals.

This area of Southeastern Utah is a greatly underserved “food desert,” with grocery stores few and far between. The Shop in Utah grant will greatly help Twin Rocks, which has been seriously affected by a drastic and unparalleled drop in both foreign and domestic tourism. The dual benefits of providing food to needy families and supporting local businesses were cited as the major reasons for the cafe’s successful grant application.

Anyone interested in helping with this innovative program is invited to eat at Twin Rocks; we’ve adopted a new menu and carry-out dining during the COVID-19 pandemic. If you would like to assist in expanding the Twin Rocks Feed the Hungry campaign, please contact the cafe general manager Frances Van der Stappen or owner Steve Simpson at (435) 672-2341 for more information. Thanks for your support.


Friday, August 14, 2020

Comb Ridge: Rocks Standing Up

Less than ten miles west of Bluff lies the geological marvel known as Comb Ridge. Stretching over 80 miles from south to north, this feature is a jagged monocline created approximately 65 million years ago when underground tectonic plates shifted to raise a sandstone rim almost 20 degrees in pitch. The formation runs northeasterly from Kayenta, Arizona, to the Abajo Mountains near Blanding, Utah, and takes its name from the jagged series of seriated outcroppings that resemble a rooster’s comb.

To Navajo people, Comb Ridge is known as Tse’ K’a’a’n, or Rocks Standing Up, and figures prominently in many origin legends. Often referred to as Big Snake, it is believed to be the home of the wind, where breezes go to sleep at night. The stone rim rises more than 700 feet above its eastern edge and is accessible from a rough, but drivable, dirt road called Butler Wash. This road stretches from Highway 163 northward to Highway 95 just south of Blanding. Looking east from the top of the ridge you can see a large swath of the Four Corners.

Southwest of the ridgeline one sees the wonders of Monument Valley nearly 1,200 feet below. Comb Ridge’s rugged crest reveals sand dunes petrified over eons. This formidable outcropping has always been an impediment to travel. Difficulty notwithstanding, trails dating to the Ancient Puebloan culture have been identified along its rugged spine. Additionally, one of the greatest challenges to early Euro-American settlers was cutting wagon roads through the stone barrier. At the southern end of the ridge, between Bluff and Mexican Hat, is the dramatic roadway called San Juan Hill. This pathway was used by early pioneers to overcome the sandstone wall and enter Bluff’s scenic river valley.

Prehistoric sites dot the Comb Ridge landscape, with prominent archaeological features such as the Wolfman Panel, Monarch Cave, Split Level Ruin, and other attractions available to hikers. Some are located within easy walking distance from Butler Wash Road, while others take considerably more effort to reach. Due to the area’s dry and arid climate, nearly all the sites are remarkably well preserved. Permits from the BLM are required for overnight backpacking and camping and much of Comb Ridge is found within the truncated Bears Ears National Monument.

One of the most dramatic and graphic of all Anasazi rock art scenes is referred to as the Procession Panel, so named for three lines of tiny human figures which seem to be marching toward a large central circle. Parking just east of Butler Wash, today’s explorers can make the 2.8-mile round-trip by negotiating the smooth rock surface that rises 510 feet in elevation from the arroyo floor. The rock art panel and panoramic views both north and south are stunning, and well worth the effort.

More than 30 miles north of old San Juan Hill is another passage cut through the Comb. West of Blanding on Hwy 95 is a man-made gap allowing access to Natural Bridges National Monument and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Another passable dirt drive, found at the bottom of the ridge, leads southward along Comb Wash. Whether your interest is geology, archaeology, photography, or just great scenery, the natural phenomena called Comb Ridge is an attraction that fascinates the first-time visitor and those of us fortunate enough to be its neighbor.

Friday, August 7, 2020

The Real Thing

After many years searching for true meaning in my life, I finally realized one element I universally need is texture. I am like a child who explores things by touching, smelling, and occasionally putting them in his mouth. At Twin Rocks Trading Post, I constantly run my hands over the Navajo rugs. I close my eyes and let my fingers wander across the weavings, feeling patterns change, exploring irregularities, and imagining the artist at work. And I love holding Navajo baskets, feeling the roundness of their coils and firmness of their weave. At times, it almost seems my fingertips can decipher the pattern independent of my eyes. I visualize basket makers harvesting sumac in the washes and along the riverbanks; I see them preparing and dying the splints; and I imagine their evolving designs spiraling out from the center.

Turquoise also fascinates me. During warm summer days, I enjoy the coolness of the cabochons. As temperatures soar, the stones remain temperate, soothing. On difficult days, I rub the pieces on my forehead to ease my troubles and wear away the worries.

Years ago, at the home above the trading post, Grange would ask me to make him peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He, like his dad, is capable of existing almost exclusively on peanut butter. His mother prefers the smooth variety. Grange and I, however, want texture and opt for extra crunchy. When it came to making sandwiches, I always asked him, "Hey Buddy, do you want the super-extra-crunchy, yummy, delicious peanut butter, or the smooth?" You can guess what he chose. I was easing him into the world of texture. Now, almost two decades later, I see the results of my teaching. Grange always looks beneath the surface of people and possessions to find their genuine character.

Because of my fundamental need for texture, the artists, visitors, and guests are what I most enjoy about the trading post. The art is beautiful, sometimes sublime, but what makes this place truly unique is the underlying culture, its structure. When you look at a weaving and realize there are generations of patient training woven into every piece, when you feel an artist’s connection to the land in its construction, and when you see his or her tradition in its pattern, you know the rug is something real, something meaningful.

Many years ago as I was mulling over a newly acquired weaving, wondering whether I needed to give it a bite to get the best context, John, an Anglo who worked on the Navajo Nation, came striding through the Kokopelli doors with his Navajo friend in tow. As John and I talked about circumstances on the reservation, the receding culture, the loss of language, the diminishing crafts, John turned toward his friend and, with a jerk of his thumb, said, "Well, I am more Navajo than he is."

What John meant was that he believed he had a better grasp of Navajo culture and tradition than his friend, a full-blooded Navajo. John felt strongly about his statement and also firmly believed it was true, even though he was not a "real" Navajo. John had spent enough time living among his friend’s people, learning their language, and trying to understand their nuances, that he clearly understood more about academic Navajo history and culture than his friend. 

A few days later, Bruce Burnham, from Sanders, Arizona, called and said he wanted to bring some friends into the trading post. It was a Sunday evening and the store had closed, but I could not pass up the opportunity to see Bruce and his wife Virginia, so I agreed to meet them. The visitors and I talked about the Germantown revivals Bruce's weavers were creating, about Billy Malone---the trader who had been at Ganado, and about recent events at Hubbell Trading Post. Afterwards, Bruce shrugged his shoulders, sighed a big, deep sigh and said, "You know, there just aren't many real, old-time traders like us left." I was flattered to be included in the pantheon of "old-time traders" and smiled broadly. My mind, however, jumped back to John's comment about his Navajo friend.

In my opinion, the "real" both Bruce and John were referring to represents a person's texture, the fiber of the individual, and the strings that combine as a result of living in a certain environment. I could tell John's friend had been raised on the reservation; he had real Southwest sand between toes and he had watched Grandma herd sheep and spin wool. He was really real and Navajo was in his soul, in his mind, in his heart, and pulsing through his veins.

Why Bruce had included me within his collection of real, old-time traders, however, continued to confound me. I was not from a well-known trading family and was not really very old at the time. Indeed, I was, for the most part, a Johnny-come-lately. After rolling the thought around several days, I finally decided the answer was once again . . . texture. After a few years of trading post experience, I had somehow been incorporated into a trader tapestry. My fiber, the very essence of my being, had become comprised of the same material that makes up old-timers like Bruce: a love of the people, a love of their art, and a love of this scorched, red land in which we all live.